Christmas Reflection: Mike Pence’s small god vs. Jesus’ Big God

Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).

Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.

Mike Pence’s small god

Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.

In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”

He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”

Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”

Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.

Yeshua’s Big God

The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.

(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)

Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:

  • Lived his entire life in poverty.
  • Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
  • As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
  • Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
  • Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).

Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial . . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.

Subsequently and besides:

  • Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
  • After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
  • The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
  • Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
  • During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.

Conclusion

Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.

Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.

So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.

It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.

That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.

Pete Buttigieg & Fake “Good News” About Jesus’ Poverty

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: SIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3: 12-21;NT 2: 13-15, 19-23

Last week Pete Buttigieg annoyed white Evangelicals by calling attention to Jesus’ poverty.

As reported in The Washington Post, his Christmas tweet read: “Today I join millions around the world celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

In response, many mostly white evangelicals went apoplectic.  “Jesus was not poor,” they countered. “And he certainly was not one of those despicable refugees. At his birth, his parents were simply obeying imperial law by returning to Joseph’s town of origin.  Bethlehem just happened to have all its rooms filled with similar obedient taxpayers. So even though Joseph and Mary were quite capable of paying, their hotel bill, they had to accept an overnight stay in a smelly, rodent-infested stable. Which of us wouldn’t do the same?”

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The next day, when we discussed the controversy over breakfast, my daughter asked, “What’s the big deal? Why do those people care so much?”

I answered, “It’s because if Jesus was poor and a refugee from state violence, the whole anti-poor, anti-refugee program of the Republican Party is nullified at least from the standpoint of faith.” It means for instance that:

  • When they support Donald Trump’s exclusion of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border, Republicans are really excluding the modern-day equivalents of Jesus, his mother and father as depicted in today’s Gospel selection. There, the Jewish King Herod’s planned slaughter of innocent babies drives Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with their new son. In other words, the Holy Family sought refugee status in Egypt.
  • Republicans are refusing to recognize Jesus’ later specific identification with such emigrants, when in the clearest representation of final judgment (MT 25), he says, “Whatever you do to the least of the brethren (i.e. the hungry, thirsty, immigrants (“strangers”), the sick and imprisoned), you do to me.” Those words absolutely identify Jesus with the categories of people just mentioned – all of them impoverished.
  • Jesus advised his followers that they themselves must become poor (MT 19:21).  He’s remembered as telling them “. . . sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” (Would Jesus recommend poverty to his followers and remain un-poor himself?)
  • The earliest Christian communities took literally Jesus’ injunction about becoming poor. In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “There were no needy ones among them, because those who owned lands or houses would sell their property, bring the proceeds from the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet for distribution to anyone as he had need.” That is, the earliest Christians’ desire to follow Jesus drove them to imitate his lowly social status.
  • Jesus described his entire mission as directed towards the poor. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Even more, as economist Michael Hudson points out in his monumental And Forgive Them Their Debts, Jesus’ programmatic reference to the “year of the Lord’s favor” points to the Jewish Jubilee Year. “Jubilee” was the biblically mandated period when all debts were to be forgiven and land returned to its original (mostly poor) owners. Hudson points out that such debt forgiveness was practiced throughout the ancient mid-east. It was more general than a biblical mandate.

According to Hudson, when new leaders acceded to the throne, they created a clean slate. All debts were forgiven. The corresponding legislation in the Book of Deuteronomy had Israel following suit.

Jesus’ “Good News” to the poor was that (following Deuteronomy) their debts needed forgiveness. Inevitably, that demand was understood by all concerned (especially by Rome’s imperialists and their puppet clients in Jerusalem’s temple) as a highly threatening call to social justice. (Can you see how that understanding of Jesus’ Good News Gospel would be similarly threatening to Republicans while at the same time encouraging Democrats seeking relief for debt -crushed students?)

As I told my daughter, that’s why it’s important to evangelical Trumpists that Jesus not be a poor man himself, that he not be an advocate for the poor, or that he not be a refugee. The contrary calls everything Republicans stand for into question. It makes Donald Trump, his exclusion of refugees, and his baby jails eerily similar to King Herod as depicted in today’s final reading.

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But everything I’ve said so far overlooks an even deeper point that I developed in my Christmas reflections last Wednesday. My point there was that the “infancy narratives” (found only in Luke and Matthew) constitute what biblical scholars for the last century and more have recognized as Midrash and Haggadah. That is, following rabbinic tradition, these accounts represent fictional stories based on readings of the Jewish Testament and intended to make a theological point.

And in the case of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s seeking refugee status in Egypt, Matthew’s theological point for his specifically Jewish audience (vs. Luke’s gentile readers) is that Jesus is the New Israel. As such, he relives his people’s early history. [And that entire history from its very beginning (and repeated in its occupation of Palestine in 1948) is that of a refugee people – refugees from Pharaoh’s enslavement to Hitler’s genocide and ubiquitous anti-Semitism.] We might even say that the Jewish Testament’s very message (reiterated in the case of Jesus) is that REFUGEES ARE GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE.

Put otherwise, the story of the Holy Family’s “Flight into Egypt” is far more than a rabbinic riff on Moses’s escape from the slaughter of Hebrew children under the Egyptian pharaoh 1200 years earlier. It actually has Jesus:

  • Begin is life, like the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in “The Promised Land”
  • Go down into Egypt to escape disaster
  • Leave Egypt
  • Spend 40 days in the desert (recapitulating Israel’s 40 years there)
  • Like Moses, dispense a New Law (i.e. the Beatitudes)
  • Precisely on a mountain (the analogue of Mt Zion) — as opposed to Luke’s location of the same teaching “on a plain.”

In summary, and in the context of Mayor Pete’s observation about Jesus’ poverty and refugee status, the point made in today’s Gospel reading is not the relatively superficial one that Jesus was poor. By all accounts he was.

No, it’s the much deeper theological point that the earliest Christian believers (like Matthew) identified Jesus with an entire people whose very essence was their refugee status. They were enslaved, had no possessions at all, had no liberty, were completely despised by their captors, and were victims of imperialism, infanticide and even genocide.

And yet this man rejected and executed by empire ended up (according to early Christian faith) destined to rule the entire cosmos.

Could any message be more revolutionary or encouraging to the world’s refugees, immigrants, poor, victims of slavery and genocide? It’s that the future belongs to them; the world belongs to them. In God’s eyes, borders are irrelevant. God is on their side. History is on their side. They have nothing to lose but their chains!

Thanks, Mayor Pete, for starting a dialog that in this election year might help Christians recognize and embrace the real Jesus and his implications for today’s problems of poverty, state-sponsored violence, immigration, and debt.

Evidently, they are not implications Republicans care to entertain.